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Overcoming Barriers for Smart Thermostat Installations

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This article is republished from the December 2019 issue of Strategies, AESP’s exclusive magazine for members. To receive Strategies, please consider joining AESP.







By Joseph Nunley & Theodore Love

josephnunley_928158.jpgSmart thermostats are becoming increasingly popular throughout the country in both        utility-funded efficiency programs and in standard market adoption. These Internet-connected and learning-capable devices show great promise, not just in energy savings (ENERGY STAR models are required to show minimum savings of 4-8 percent on heating load and 5-10 percent in  cooling load1) but as an effective customer engagement tool for both gas and electric utilities. However, there are some barriers to adoption that need to be addressed in program design. This article identifies four common barriers and discusses strategies to overcome them. When these strategies are included in a program design, utilities will experience greater customer satisfaction, energy savings, trade ally engagement, and program adoption rates.


Barrier 1: You need to be tech savvy and have Wi-Fi to save energy with smart thermostats

theodorelove_928162.jpgA common misconception with smart thermostats is that the customer and trade ally installer must be tech savvy and have Wi-Fi. It is often thought that without these two items all hope is lost. That is simply FALSE. While it certainly helps to get the most out of your smart thermostat if you are tech savvy and have a Wi-Fi connection, they are not a requirement to achieve overall energy savings. In fact, a 2016 study of the Colorado Weatherization Assistance Program showed that houses without a Wi-Fi connection did not show a significant difference in overall energy savings when a smart thermostat was installed in conjunction with weatherization measures versus homes that had a traditional thermostat installed2. Furthermore, the ENERGY STAR specification for connected thermostats v1.0 specifies testing methodology when connectivity is not present.3 These methodologies show that when connectivity is not present a unit must still be fully functional as an accurate programmable thermostat, and you will not need to navigate an app on your phone to get savings from a smart thermostat.

When approaching a program design that includes smart thermostats, simply take into consideration your customers that may not have Wi-Fi connectivity and tailor some educational materials around them. Promoting the smart thermostats as a highly accurate programmable thermostat with low standby power and the potential for greater savings will increase adoption with or without connectivity.

Barrier 2: Many homes do not have a Common Wire (C-Wire)

The absence of a common wire running from the thermostat directly to the HVAC system is certainly an issue in older homes. While the number of homes this affects will vary by region, we have seen installers report a range of 20–50 percent of homes which they install smart thermostats in, do not have a C-Wire. The obvious solution to this barrier is to simply install a C-Wire. A simple C-wire installation does not take very long and has limited costs. However, more complex installations may require over an hour with significant patching work and some program administrators may even require an electrician to do an installation. However, unlike when smart thermostats first hit the market, there is another solution. New products, such as the VENSTAR Add-A-Wire or ecobee Power Extender Kit, offer cheap alternatives to running a physical wire. They allow 4-wire systems to work like 5-wire systems and 5-wire systems to work like 6-wire systems through minimal intervention at the HVAC controller and behind the thermostat. They work as low power signal emitters, and do not require a Wi-Fi system. Early feedback from contractors is very positive, and as this technology becomes more effective, they should be a no brainer to accompany your smart thermostat installation when a C-Wire is not present.

When approaching a program design that includes smart thermostats, simply take into consideration the costs associated with running a C-Wire or installing a wire extension device. For maximum adoption, your program trade allies should also be consulted for their preferred approach, and training on alternative installation approaches should be provided.

Barrier 3: Smart thermostats only work on single stage equipment

We are going to keep this solution short and sweet for you. This common misconception may have been true when smart thermostats were in their first, and even second, versions. But as the technology has advanced many models are able to handle multi-stage equipment. Generally,this feature will be offered in the more expensive model from manufacturers, so make sure your program design includes a variety of brands and feature levels, that will allow your customers and trade allies to install the proper fit for each home.

Barrier 4: Customers need education to understand the thermostats

Perhaps the largest barrier to the adoption of smart thermostats is getting customers to understand and utilize the full power of smart thermostats. Common issues that customers experience are: a non-intuitive display (including the display not always displaying information in sleep mode), trouble shifting away from the on/off thermostat mentality, and not understanding how to best utilize all the features of the thermostat to maximize their comfort and savings.

When approaching a program design that includes smart thermostats it is necessary to include a robust training protocol in order to ensure maximum customer and trade ally satisfaction and adoption. The first step would be to provide installing trade allies with training either directly from the smart thermostat manufacturers or training that you have developed to help trade allies fully understand the features of the thermostats they are installing. Secondly, installing trade allies must take the time to educate customers on the features and set up the thermostat for the customer prior to leaving their home. A checklist should be provided to installing trade allies to help them best facilitate this set up and education. Lastly, program administrators need to provide contractors with educational materials to leave behind for customers, such as step-by-step instructions on addressing common questions with full color picture examples. This will help address questions that might come up after the installation has been completed and reduce the number of customer call backs. An ideal program design would also include a toll-free call center to address customer questions and concerns directly.


Smart thermostats are a great way to increase program savings and customer comfort, but there can be some significant barriers to adoption of this new technology. Four of the most common barriers and misconceptions are outlined in the table below, along with strategies for overcoming them.

Barrier to Adoption or MisconceptionStrategy for Addressing
Wi-Fi and Tech Savviness is RequiredCurrent ENERGY STAR models do not require Wi-Fi to operate and should still provide significant savings. They also do not require much customer intervention, even though advanced features are only unlocked with Wi-Fi access and some customer manipulation.

Missing Common Wire


The best option is to install a C-wire, but new wire extension kits provide a quick and cheap alternative to a physical wire.
Multi-stage Heating SystemsMake sure your program includes some of the newer and slightly more expensive models that are able to handle multiple stage systems.
Customers Do Not Understand or Fully Use Smart ThermostatBoth installer and customer education are crucial. Best practices include thorough contractor training up front, a training session with customers in the house, a packet to leave behind that address common issues, and additional web and phone support.

Joe Nunley is a Senior Program Manager with Performance Systems Development where he is responsible for program design, process improvement, and business growth. Joe has 13 years of experience in the efficiency industry including as a home performance contractor, trade ally manager, utility program manager, and program implementer.

Theo Love is a Partner at Green Energy Economics Group  where he has worked on the design and analysis of many energy efficiency programs and portfolios across North America. Theo has recently helped with the design and development of multiple natural gas efficiency programs in Pennsylvania that utilize smart thermostat technology.

This article is contributed by the AESP Gas Energy Efficiency Topic Committee.

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 18, 2019 10:12 pm GMT

The absence of a common wire running from the thermostat directly to the HVAC system is certainly an issue in older homes. While the number of homes this affects will vary by region, we have seen installers report a range of 20–50 percent of homes which they install smart thermostats in, do not have a C-Wire.

In my experience-- just the fact that there's a question is enough to scare away some customers because it's not universal. The smart thermostat manufacturers tend to have great guides to determine what wires you do / don't have, but for some customers they'll get the impression that complex electrical work might be needed and they'll be less motivated to get involved.

What's the best way to overcome this type of inertia?

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